March 23 2009
First appeared in the Washington Examiner
America's democratic experience runs back more than two centuries. Throughout this history, we've recognized that using a secret ballot is a bedrock principle of a true democracy. Only with this privacy can people vote their conscience, without fear of retaliation. Yet Congress is considering legislation to eliminate secret ballots for workers.
Joining a union is one of the most important freedoms that American workers possess. But they also have a right not to join. After all, unions often don't act in the best interest of all Americans, especially of minorities and women.
First, unions tend to be a force of stasis in a world of change. Expanding global markets put a premium on flexibility and entrepreneurship. Our economic future depends on more quickly and effectively responding in the global marketplace.
Unfortunately, unions reflexively promote the status quo, which is why the vast majority of workers in the private sector-more than 82 percent-choose not to join a union.
Second, historically unions have been notoriously unfriendly to minorities and women. Consider the Davis-Bacon Act, which was passed in 1934, to require construction firms contracting for the federal government to pay their workers "locally prevailing wages."
Unions were very supportive of the bill, for obvious reasons, since it makes sure that union shops can't be underbid by competitors with workers willing to work for less. Lawmakers who supported the bill were explicit that one of the effects of this bill would be to keep lower-skilled African-American workers out of federal construction projects.
And it has: as Harry Alford, president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, testified before Congress, the City of Detroit, a city 77 percent black, built a new football stadium and major league baseball park, making a huge investment in construction and infrastructure. Yet because these projects were "union only," less than 15 percent of those working on the job were African-American.
It's a big decision for workers whether or not they are better off being a part of a union. We take secret ballots for granted in other elections, such as political races. Last November Americans voted without fear of someone looking over their shoulders.
Currently, U.S. law provides similar protection for workers. Collecting cards from 30 percent of employees triggers a secret ballot overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor. That election protects workers from intimidation by unions or companies. Which means employees can vote no, as they do in 40 percent of the cases. Union executives, frustrated with these results, now want to do away with elections.
Under the big labor plan, so-called "Card Check", unions would be recognized if 50 percent plus one of workers signed cards. Labor activists contend that automatic recognition protects organizers from company retaliation. But National Labor Relations Board figures indicate that such behavior occurs in barely three percent of cases.
In contrast, Card Check is an open invitation to abuse. Think of voting in Zimbabwe and having to show your ballot to Robert Mugabe before dropping it in the box.
And workers across the country already complain about the behavior of labor organizers. Some union reps mislead workers about the significance of signed cards, claiming, for instance, that the latter simply represent a request for more information. Today such misrepresentation can at most trigger an election. With Card Check, such behavior could put unwilling employees in a union against their wishes.
Far worse, however, many unions improperly pressure people into signing cards. The temptation to do so already exists, but the prospect of winning union recognition without having to win a vote would encourage even more abuses. Winning signatures would become the equivalent of winning elections.
Obviously, threats can be made and violence can be used against anyone. But women are particularly vulnerable to physical intimidation. Many women and African Americans tend to be less financially secure and possess less workplace seniority. And women are more likely to be raising children alone. Women particularly need to be able to make their employment decisions without any boss, union or corporate, standing in the room with them.
These dangers are not just theoretical. Workers across America, including many women, tell stories of workplace abuse. For instance, housekeeper Faith Jetter worked for the Renaissance Hotel in Pittsburgh.
She found herself the subject of none-too-gentle attentions by the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. Jetter complained of intense pressure to sign a card, harassing calls to her home, and attempts by organizers to collect personal information about her. No surprise, she is unmoved by arguments for giving labor an election bye.
Said Jetter: "If this union was going to come into the workplace, I would absolutely want to have a secret ballot election so that me [sic] and my fellow employees could vote our consciences in private, without being pressured by the union representative."
Notably, Jetter wants elections for another reason as well: "I would also want to hear all sides of the story, not just the union's side." The fact that elections allow employers as well as unions to make their case is an important reason why labor organizers so dislike the ballot box-except when it comes to dropping union representation.
Faith Jetter speaks for most Americans who value their democratic rights, including the right to a secret ballot. Workers deserve the same protections in choosing whether to join or not to join a union. Congress should reject organized labor's campaign to intimidate its way to power and allow employees to make their own decisions.
Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Independent Women's Forum and Independent Women's Voice. She is also author of "Women's Progress: How Women and Are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent Than Ever Before," and is an MSNBC political analyst.